Proserpine and Ceres

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This fertility myth seems to have Mycenaean (pre-Homeric) origins, but the earliest and in many ways the best version that survives is from the late seventh century b.c.e. in the Homeric hymn to Demeter, or Ceres. Demeter (either “earth mother” or “grain mother”) and her daughter Persephone (corrupted by the Romans into Proserpina) were originally two aspects of one mythic personality: The mother was associated with the harvest, the daughter with the sprouting grain. The Greeks, fearfully avoiding mention of the daughter’s name, called her simply Kore, that is, “grain” maiden. This practice of avoiding the actual name was usual with the powerful and mysterious chthonian (underworld) deities whom the Greeks wished not to risk offending.

The literary history of the myth is extensive, including two appearances in Ovid—Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) and Fasti (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1859)—but there are only minor variations, such as where the rape occurred, who Triptolemus was, how many pomegranate seeds Proserpine ate, and how much of the year she remains with Hades. The above synopsis, which is a conflation of Ovid’s accounts, differs from the Homeric hymn in the Triptolemus episode. In the hymn, Ceres’ hosts, Celeus and Metanira, are not peasants but the rulers of Eleusis, near Athens. In her old age, Metanira gives birth to a child, Demophon, whom she gives to Ceres, disguised as Doso, to suckle. Triptolemus was one of Eleusis’s youthful nobility and was among the first to participate in Ceres’ mysteries, or secret rites, in the temple built by Celeus. The hymn also has Proserpine spend one-third of the year with her husband below the earth; this reflects a tripartite seasonal year of spring, summer, winter. Despite mention in the hymn that Proserpine emerges to the upperworld in the spring, reputable scholars argue that her four months’ absence is associated with the summer-long storage of harvested grain in June. (The grain was put in jars in the cool earth till planting in the winter.) The traditional interpretation is that the fresh seed grain is planted in the winter and the maiden shoots emerge in the early spring.

The Eleusinian mysteries most closely resemble what one might call a universal religion. Its objective is preparation for eternal peace through understanding the mystery of cyclic growth. Although great numbers of Greek-speaking persons were initiated into the mysteries, little authoritative information about them survives. Clement of Alexandria, a convert to Christianity, reveals that votaries dramatized the myth of Ceres and Proserpine, fasted, handled sacred objects, and partook of the sacramental porridge of water, flour, and mint that Ceres was offered at Eleusis. The Lesser Mysteries were celebrated in Athens in the early spring; they consisted of prayers, purifications, and the like. The Great Mysteries were performed in September/October; nine days of grand procession from Athens to Eleusis and back featured numerous rituals, at the height of which priests and priestesses were consecrated. Certainly the mysteries relied heavily on symbolic ritual and mythic reenactment. The nine days of the Greater Mysteries correspond to the nine days of Ceres’ fasting as she searched for her daughter; the pomegranate with its many “bloody” seeds symbolizes fertility; Proserpine’s marriage to Hades metaphorically explains the mystery of fertilization and growth within the earth. It is even theorized that the secret dramas included ritualistic sexuality, imitating the hieros gamos (“sacred union”) of the underworld deities that brings fertility to the fields. Such a ritual was common to a number of cults, and within the myth of Ceres herself is her union with her brother Jupiter, the sky god, which...

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produces Proserpine.

The basic structure of the myth is simple: peaceful innocence, sudden violence, misguided revenge, and finally reconciliation; within this dramatic structure, the mythmakers have woven origins of the Eleusinian cult. Ovid’s insertion of the Arethusa myth is forced, since it is merely preparation for its lengthier telling immediately following in Metamorphoses. There are also some excellent descriptive sequences: the gathering of flowers by Proserpine, the sudden dark violence of Hades, the awesome burning of Metanira’s child in the fire. Finally, the characterizations of both in Ovid’s versions and in the hymn are classic: Proserpine as the innocent virgin, carefully protected; Demeter, the doting mother; Hades, the lustful villain who creates trouble when he makes an unprecedented appearance in the upperworld; Jupiter, the supreme administrator and magistrate, who must act to prevent the extinction, through starvation, of humanity (the gods’ sacrificers) and who must strike a compromise between forces of equal power. The resolution is no doubt necessary to explain why in other myths Proserpine seems quite at ease in her role as queen of the dead. It is likely that her character is a confusion of the witch goddess, Hecate, and a primitive earth goddess. In the underworld, she rules with authority. There she appears to the various heroes who descend to Hades, including Orpheus, Aeneas, and others; she is also the object of an attempted rape by Theseus and Pirithous. The most significant twentieth century adaptation of the myth is the musical drama Persephone (1934) by Igor Stravinsky and André Gide, in which the heroine willingly sacrifices herself to bring joy and youth to the gloomy realm below.